MP: Mrs. White, you’ve been in the forefront fighting
for Norfolk School System for many years. Today I’d like to explore with
you the history of you, the woman. What gave you the vision? What was
your motivation? and What gave you the courage to fight through that period
White: I didn’t
see it as courage. I saw it as the natural thing to do. If you live
in Norfolk, you want schools for all Norfolk children. I had children
going to school. I wouldn’t dare live here and be opposed to Norfolk
MP: How old were
White: Ah. .
I guess the oldest was about.. .uh, well, I can look up the dates of
their birth and let you figure it out, okay? I have a tile here in the
MP: Oh... .you
Stern made this for me. Let’s see, Hap was born in 1947, so in the fall
of ‘58 he was eleven years old.. . and Holly was born in ‘49, so she
was nine, and Barry was born.. .Oh, golly, this tile has slipped, in
‘54, is that right... yea, so she was five.. . she hadn’t started school
yet, and Mark was born in ‘56 so he was just a little guy, he was two
years old. So, we had a wild and active family.
MP: You had young
children during all this crisis.
White: Oh yes,
you bet, lots of them.
MP: Let’s back-track
a little bit and find out where you were born.. . were you a Norfolk native?
in New Jersey.
MP: And you grew
up in New Jersey?
up in New Jersey. Went to a little private school there.. .a very little
one, and had no science, and really was ill-prepared for the twentieth
century. It was a little day school, you know, a nice private school--good
literature, good foreign language, and in a sense, a marvelous education
in depth, but just no. . . you know. . . none of the things you need
for the twentieth century. You were well-educated and not well prepared.
MP: An intimate
When I was a senior in high school, my father died. That was not long
after the end of the depression. Suddenly, financially, we were in tough
shape. I had to get a scholarship to college.
you went to Vassar?
The scholarship I got was Vassar, so that’s where I went. I worked my
way through, and in those days you could really work. I got to send
money home. I don’t think you could do that now.
MP: Wow! What
did you do? What was your job?
I got a lot of different jobs, but I ran the student self-help bureau
which was great because...
MP: Is that
like financial aid?
all the jobs for students. You run the bureau and are fairly well-paid
for that, and when there was a job you can’t find somebody for, you
can do it or get somebody to do it with you or something. You have a
lot of opportunities to earn money
lot of opportunities to earn money.
MP: That’s wonderful
that you could send money home. So then did you work after college?
White: I worked
summers, sure. I worked in New York cause we lived right near New York
and commuted. I had lots of fun working for a college shop one summer
back, you know, in the gung-ho college clothing days, and decided I
never wanted to be a model. But then, in senior year in college, we
were at war, and many of my best friends were being killed. A Navy captain
came on campus, and summoned the few of us who had the math and language
courses they needed so they could use us in Naval Intelligence.. . and
so, I signed up and went into the Navy.
you graduated by then?
White: No, I
took some courses, secret courses, at college--had to highly contain
what you were doing.
MP: Secret courses!
yea, it was really something. You couldn’t let your roommate know..
. it was all top secret jumbo.
MP: In Naval
. in code-breaking--cryptography, which is what they were training us
for. I went right into the WAVES. I think I was the youngest WAVE commissioned
because I graduated from college when I was twenty, and I got commissioned
before I was twenty-one. They suddenly got very nervous about it after
they ... I
met the man I replaced for active sea duty. . . and he was not very
pleased about it...
MP: He wasn’t?
Because he was being sent to sea and I was taking his job in Washington.
I worked in cryptography, Japanese language, in Washington for a couple
of years, and then at the end of the war, I got in U.S. Armed Forces
courses trying to help boys getting out of the Navy train for jobs and
train to get back into college. USAFI it was called. I got sent to a
hospital up in northern New York State, Sampson. There was a great big
tuberculosis hospital-a lot of people didn’t even know it existed, but
at that time they had no cure for tuberculosis and loads and loads of
these boys came back, particularly from submarines in the south Pacific
with active TB.. . a tremendous number of deaths of young kids. There
were thousands of boys in this hospital and my job was to go out on
the wards and try to get them interested in planning for when they got
well and they got out.
MP: What was your
training for that? or was there?
White: Not very
much.. . you know.. .a brief Navy course. And we had had a college education,
and that was considered what we needed. Of course, you get so involved
in people’s lives and problems there. But that’a where I met Forry.
He was an intern. He was completing an internship at Sampson Naval Hospital
and he was also a Lt. (j.g.) and ranks me by about seven days or something
like that. I don’t know, he knows... I’ve forgotten. We met because
word came that I was to receive a unit citation for breaking Japanese
codes. . . a whole gang of us. They had never had a WAVE officer. .
. this dismal, dismal hospital way up in northern New York state in
the middle of the bleakest winter they had ever had. Nothing came in
or went out. There was just snow and so few events happened. So the
captain thought this would be great, you know, they could decorate a
WAVE! And, of course, I was the only young WAVE officer.
MP: You were the
So, they got a great kick out of kidding me, of course, and there were
very few WAVES up there, and the other few were considerably older.
They were going to do the thing with full regalia, so I would wear all
the ribbons to which I was entitled. No woman wore all those ribbons,
and I looked around for a young man to borrow them from and saw a nice
looking young man who didn’t look as though he would make any harm or
trouble and I asked him. He thought it was hysterical! And that was
Forry! So, he lent me the ribbons to get decorated and somehow we got
to be good friends.
MP: So you had
never had the ribbons.
White: No, women
didn’t go in for all that stuff that you were entitled for, you know.
If you just breathed in and out, there were some ribbons you were entitled
MP: And you had
to go to get those?
White: I borrowed
them from him.
MP: Were they
automatically given to the men?
White: I don’t
know how they--I don’t even know how many of the men got them or what,
but I think.. . you know, Forry had been in the Navy in medical school
and they were meant to wear the appropriate uniform. Nobody worried
about whether the WAVES.. . but for the great ceremony, I thought I’d
get up for it. That’s how I met him. We lived together in a BOQ.. .
I mean we lived in the same BOQ where women and men were very much separated.
. . but it was a good way to get to know people pretty well.
MP: So, when did
we married in the following fall -- about ‘46. I’m looking to see
when the kids were born.
MP: Did you live
there for a while, or did you move back?
we lived there for a while, and then he got more training and was sent
to California. So, we got to drive across the country and see the world..
. and had a baby in California. Thought California was beautiful and
we loved the outdoors and the beaches and the golf. We just missed the
fall and the turning leaves so much, we had to come back to Virginia.
MP: So, you came
the next year - probably in about '52?
White: In about
two years, I guess, we came back with a baby.
MP: So, Hap was
born in ‘47 and Holly was in ‘49...
and he was. .Forry was still doing his pediatric residency in Richmond.
MP: Did you live
in Richmond then?
White: Did we
ever. Yea, in a one-room -- it was something. That’s when’they didn’t
pay residents. We lived on the $90 a month GI bill.
MP: That’s impossible
one baby here and another on the way - yea.
MP: When did you
come back to Norfolk?
it must have been.. .Forry’s better on dates. ..I think about 1950.
MP: The reason
I’m talking about dates is because I came across a letter written to you
in ‘52 where you were invited to a Democratic meeting at Hotel Chamberlain.
White: Oh yes,
sure. Well, I came back in 1950.
MP: So, I was
trying to put in place how long you were here to kind of establish who
you were. You were one of the few women who was invited to that meeting.
I think there were ten out of fifty-six.
was because I, well, let’s see, we came here in 1950. The first year
was pretty grim because Forry had polio and was really laid up. We didn’t
have any money, you know. We weren’t sure if he was going to get around
or how it would be, so didn’t get too active in things. But then the
next year, I think - now I’m off on dates - Francis Pickens Miller ran
against Byrd in the political campaign and I got very interested in
it. Ah.. And he was just.. he just needed any help he could get, so
I think we put on a t.v. - I think it was radio or t.v. program one,
for him in Norfolk and got working with the political setup for Frances
Pickens Miller, who now is revered as a great elder statesman, but at
that time he was a highly controversial figure because he opposed Harry
Byrd. He was considered a wide-eyed liberal. Really he was the closest
thing we had to anybody who had any visions of the world changing at
all. At that time the staunch Virginia opinion was that things should
stay exactly as they were if not moved backward. Certainly as far as
integration or opening up the vote for people - you know we went through
blank sheet registration or -are you familiar with some of that?
was a very difficult time to register to vote because you went down
to (you might want to look some of this up -)when we went down to register
to vote, through some peculiar wording in the bill, ah, the registrar
took it literally that you should not be told what you should be asked,
or something like that, and if - one of the questions was "What
was your previous job?" and "Where are you working now?"
If you were at the same job and didn’t number that in consecutive numbers,
you didn't get the right answers. See the rest of your answers were
not correct so you were - your application was refused. Of course, many
more blacks were turned down for registration - somehow whites seemed
to get registered, but it was one of the means to keep the electorate
small so it could be controlled.
MP: How did that
come to your attention? How were you aware of that?
here was unaware of it!
MP: That was being
and we were trying to start the League of Women Voters (which again
I would have to look up the dates) but we were working on it and there
had been several attempts to start the League of Women Voters in Norfolk
- it was not in existence. The rumor was, and I can’t document it, that
people who were interested in keeping the electorate small and keeping
Mr. Byrd and Mr. Pryor, who was the clerk of the court, in control,
they would say, "Don’t go to a public place, come to my house"
and they would get them over their house and serve them nice coffee
and say, "Now, we girls all, get along fine, and we don’t need
any organization like this." The whole thing would fall. So when
we finally got it going, we were determined we’d meet in public places
where everybody was welcome and nobody would, you know. We finally got
a League going. That first year, we started up a League. I think that
had something to do with the climate of the day in Norfolk - getting
the League of Women Voters and trying to urge people to get - women
- to get registered to vote. Things I think would be important would
be that, and of course, I was a member of the Women’s Interracial Council
and know some of the prominent black women. Mrs. Mason (have you read
about her?) and had the opportunity to be really good friends with some
of the more prominent black women in the community and saw what we were
missing by having two such very separate communities.. . no opportunity
to share. Yet we saw that our aspirations for our children were so much
the same You know, so many white people living in Norfolk did not know
some of the educated blacks assumed blacks all belonged to one economic
class. When they were talking about. . . and it was why they had a hard
time adjusting to blacks coming to high school. Because they were picturing,
I guess, rag-a-muffins coming into class instead of children of professional
people who had aspirations for college. You know, they just really didn’t
have the experience to base it on and it was because we were two such
very separate communities. Women’s Interracial Council was a marvelous
opportunity to know people that cross racial lines, and League of Women
Voters was another opportunity to get to know them. When the American
Association of University Women , although there was objection and some
of the old members withdrew, we followed the national regulations to
admit all women who had graduated from accredited colleges and some
of these groups began to change. For those of us living here, these
were experiences in knowing women we had a lot of common bonds with
- women who had gone to college, women who were interested in politics,
women who cared about the community, you know. Suddenly, you realize
how ridiculous all this is. You know ideas of the groups when you began
to work together on a committee with somebody. I think working together
is important, and we began to realize that the only way our children
would change was if they were in class with other children of other
races and worked with them and shared with them. As long as each, both
the white groups and black groups, saw each other - kind of foreign,
you know, out there, a monolithic, threatening kind of thing, there
would be no hope for the community of people working. So, those were
probably the reasons a lot of the women got very interested in working
for the Committee for Public Schools. They had had experience working
together before and they knew what they were working for.
MP: What in
your background gave you the vision to join these groups? Was it your
Vassar experience? Were your parents visionary?
White: That’s always
a good question. Sure, Vassar had a lot to do with it, you know, and
some of the other Vassar graduates in the community were working on
some of these things. And of course, being in the Armed Forces, you
know, I had just a lot more.. . being from the north.. .a lot more experience.
I had some black friends in college and served with some black officers..
. had a lot more experience knowing, being close friends with people
of other races. I think that makes a difference.
MP: In some ways,
that would isolate you in Norfolk. Were there many other women who had
had those kinds of experiences in this area at that time?
White: We were
beginning to be a more cosmopolitan place, and it was something that
drew you to the women who shared your ideas. I know that when the schools
were closed, and I was working for the Committee for Public Schools,
I was still playing tennis at the Country Club, you know, even though
the Country Club people were very opposed to the idea, but I’ve always
thought that if you’re ever going to make any changes, you’re not going
to make them by withdrawing. I remember one woman I played with said,
"Oh, I would just love to work on it, but I’m just afraid I wouldn’t
have any friends." And I remember saying to her, "I’ve got more
friends now than I..." Because you know, really, that’s a very
artificial. . . what kind of friends are they if they, you know, if
they’re going to drop you because you have ideas. Or is it required
that all your friends share or have the same ideas that you have?
MP: You were very
accepting of people who didn’t at that point...
White:Well, I don’t
know. I think I was very prejudiced against prejudiced people, and it’s
taken a long time to look at them with more understanding.
MP: That has evolved.
That’s not where you were.
White: Yes, that’s
right. I think I had sort of definite prejudices and just assumed that
anybody who was worth anything would see the world as I did, but I don’t
think it was courage. ..I think it was probably just, you know.. I had
blinders the other way. And, now I can be tolerant and loving with people
even when they are narrow-minded...I hope...at least I work on it.
MP: I’m relieved
to know that maybe you had those prejudices then!
White: Oh, of course
I do. I knew I did, but I understand (this shouldn’t be in your interview),
but I understand that - there was a whole group when - for the Committee
for Public Schools announced, there was a lot of strong feeling in the
community opposed to it from people who were just picturing all kinds
of threats to their children and all kinds of personal things. We, of
course, got threatening phone calls by the barrel, and one of the things
that we learned, and I would say it to any woman who’s in that position
- was to think of what you’re going to say when you get the call and
be able to say it without being disturbed by it. If you can deal with
it and not really get involved in the emotional situation. People would
call at dinner, and we had four kids at dinner, and my husband getting
calls - phoned for emergency things and stuff, and you hate to get all
riled up and come on back and get the baby’s bib on straight, so we’d
get these calls. .. like real hate calls "I hope you die tonight".
I discovered the best thing to do was to say "Oh, you poor thing.
You’re just all consumed with hatred, aren’t you. I’m going to pray
for you" . And they’d say, "Don’t you dare!" or "I
know it must hurt to have all those angry feelings and I’m really sorry
that you have them. It’s no fun to be angry" - that kind of thing.
We’d just get a pattern like that.
MP: You took
the lead - kind of put it back in their court.
silly to try to argue with them and say "Well, you’re angry at
the wrong person". Instead of trying to justify yourself, if you
just took that approach... We had calls all through the night because
we couldn’t take our phone off the hook because my husband was on call.
We had a fiery cross burned out in the front yard. People were really
into this thing.
MP: Was the Ku
Klux Klan active at that point?
it was a bunch of kids, we discovered, but they were probably put up
to it by their parents because of what they’d heard at home. You know,
there was a lot of feeling of people. There were people who stopped
speaking to me then, and with whom I’ve never gotten close to again,
but they weren’t close friends, so I can’t say it was a great loss.
MP: Did that push
you to other people that you really bonded with?
White: Oh yes,
sure.. . other marvelous friends. I understand that when we used to
go over to the Country Club - we were just learning then. Forry had
polio, and to get active, we learned tennis. That’s really been a great
saving in his life, but other wives could, of course, just stay up at
the net and tap the ball, but I had to do the running. But we really
enjoyed it. I understand there was a whole group of women who wouldn’t
speak to us when we went over there. I was so dumb, I didn’t know it,
so I would always say "Hi" and they would get off the court.
We always had the court to play on and I thought it was just great..
. and it was, usually. Someone told me that they tried this for about
two years, and finally gave up because I always said "Hi, good
to see you. . .Hello, how are you" and never noticed they weren’t
speaking. So, you can see that I have a lot of blinders.
MP: They served
White: My neighbors
next door at that time who didn’t speak to us but we always waved and
told the children always to wave and say "Good morning, how are
you". My dear old mother who lived with us was senile always -
couldn’t see or hear too well, and she’d wave and say "Oh, your
roses are so lovely". She didn’t know they weren’t speaking.
MP: She was spared.
was adorable. She was such a warm cute person...Anybody who could be
mean to her, you know, you’d really feel sorry for them. By the time
they moved away, I well remember, she called me over and told me that
we were the nicest neighbors they’d ever had. So, we finally broke through.
If you keep waving to somebody everyday, they feel awfully stupid walking
by without talking. But, yes...as I talk about it, I remember, yes,
there was a lot of feeling in the community. But there were many of
us working together and feeling very deeply about it - for public schools.
And there was real communication among the group and a real strength.
When you’re part of a group that really believes in what they’re doing
and you have bonds with them and can giggle with them, I think you have
more enriching friendships than if you just barely speak. You know,
we’re acquainted with a lot of people who have differing ideas from
MP: You must have
had a wonderful support group and your relationship with your husband
As I say, there were a good group of women in the AAUW, the League of
Women Voters - other people appeared all the time. When the Committee
for Public Schools got going, there were just marvelous women who appeared
and took leadership roles and responsibilities and helped raise the
funds - that was a big job. The women really did it, you know. We had
to call and call and call. Of course, you’d call people who would be
-it’s scary to call and not know what reception you were going to get.
We met at the Unitarian Church, and we’d get everybody all geared up
and say, "Now, all right, before you can have your second cup of
coffee in the morning, you have to call ten people. Make this something
you can really make yourself do. And give yourself a reward when you’re
done." As we called people, we discovered that secretly there were
a lot of people in the community who were with us. For one reason or
another, their husband’s job - because of this or that - they were not
daring to speak out, but secretly, a lot of them were with us.
MP: So, you were
contacting other women.
Calling and asking for donations for funds. We have the book here of
all the people who sent us money. A lot of money would turn up here
anonymously. But a lot of people were sympathetic because they knew
that no community would survive with public schools, you know, it’s
a ridiculous idea, isn’t it?
MP: Yes. You were
able to live without being overwhelmed with resentment for these people
who were giving anonymous money and would not speak up and join you?
White: Oh yes.
Sure, because I could understand. For instance, your father was a judge.
He couldn’t have contributed or given his name to the contribution,
but he might have sent some money. Many people who worked for the government...
many people were in positions...and you remember, the political control
was pretty complete in Virginia at the time. There were many people
who obviously couldn’t. The only person I know who made a really great
financial sacrifice who were involved in this were the James. For Ruth
and Ellis, really, really, their life changed, but Forry’s practice
may.. . some people may have switched. Other people may have come to
him, but on the whole, I think people who thought about it could see
why a pediatrician would be for public schools. It was in keeping with
his practice. He didn’t get much professional resentment. You judge
how you’re doing professionally by whether you’re getting referrals
from other doctors. Even though it was kind of scary - he was pretty
new at practicing medicine. He was still getting over polio. No other
prominent doctors would put their name on it. On the whole, I don’t
think economically we suffered. That made me free to speak where lots
of other people didn’t ‘cause I didn’t feel that my husband’s livelihood
was threatened . So you talk about courage - well, it has a lot to do
with the position you’re in. I wasn’t thinking my kids were going to
MP: You take the
position you're in.
White: I think
any woman has to go along with how threatened her husband feels, don’t
you. Luckily, I got lots of support in this from Forry, who eventually
was President of the Norfolk Committee for Public Schools. As usual,
it took him a little - he’s an old Norfolk, you know, person. He hadn’t
lived in other parts of the world much. He hadn’t had those experiences.
It took him awhile to kind of mull it over. He kind of thinks things
through very carefully, but when he comes.. . when he believes in it,
he can be effective and articulate. He wrote the good article, he was
the officer, he did a lot of these things.
MP: Was his family
supportive? His mother was here.
family was darling. Yes, they.. . ah, you knew his dad from Columbian
Peanut Company. They were pretty much "old Norfolk" in a way,
and yet they believed that people had a right to their individual opinions.
They had worked hard in the Methodist Church and their religious convictions
went along with understanding all people with Christianity for all people.
So, they had a lot backing them and while they would not have come out
and done the things we did, they supported our right to do it, I really
valued them for that. They were great about it. They never made us feel
that we were breaking with family tradition.
MP: That’s wonderful..
. so you did have the support of family.
in a sense. Well, sure. -and they made us feel that family caring comes
before political agreement. Yes.
MP: So, when
all this was happening, you were only here two years to get involved (back
to the meeting at the Chamberlain) but that’s probably why you were involved
in that, because of your involvement in these organizations.
see the League hadn’t started then. There was no women’s activity in
politics until 1952. It was late in the ‘50’s when women began to get
politically awakened and Mary Thrasher ran for office. Lots of people..
. lots of people... lots of women who really admired Mary and thought
she was very effective, had to admit that they had never registered
to vote. It was sort of the thing to say that, "Oh, I let my husband
do the voting" you know. It was not considered the "feminine"
thing to do. And yet, when Mary was running for office, women realized:
Hey, you know , she needs my support and I’d better get registered.
I think it was a big help. Mary did not win that election though, but
I think Evelyn Hailey was elected partly because women began to see
that they had better vote their own vote. I think we’ve been very proud
of Evelyn as somebody who served well in the Legislature, and a lot
of the backing began in those years before.
MP: We’ve come
a long way.
White: . . . and a lot of the liberalizing - broadening of the vote
in Norfolk so that no one could control it - and the liberalizing of
it - looking at politics in a different way. A lot of that came out,
partly, of that experience of the Committee for Public Schools. I think
it was an important part in the developing of Norfolk -the deciding
that Norfolk, yes, would be a cosmopolitan city and that we didn’t
have to... You know, Richmond was so angry at Norfolk. I remember going
to a medical meeting in Richmond when our schools were closed and having
lots of the doctors say "Keep those schools closed, don't you ever
open them. Good for you to close them." I'd say "Don't be
silly, we're doing everything we can to open them. What kind of community
do you think we are?" They didn't give a hoot about Norfolk as
long as old Virginia stood staunch. And of course, Forry and Nary went
up to see Gov. Almond, and you know the whole historical background
of it, but I think Norfolk began to realize-Hey, if it was going to
be a city to get the Navy and have colleges and to do the things we
wanted to do, we couldn’t try to stay in line with Richmond and
the rest of Virginia, we'd better be a city that thought for itself.
Ever since, our politics are much more... well "liberal" is
such a bad word, but you know, I think we don’t go the straight
line and we look at things in a different way. This is part of the awakening
to be a cosmopolitan community.
MP: Norfolk drew
national attention during that time.
yes, of course, the Edward R. Murrow show.
MP: Were you on
White: Oh sure,
and all the good friends were on it, and getting ready for that was
MP: What did you
do to get ready?
White: We had
to get all kinds of people who would come to that meeting to be on t.v.
And try to get everything ready to be presented and see who had the
gumption and courage to speak out. We weren’t really sure til the night
they did the tape who would be there and what people would say. So it
was...it was not rehearsed.. .a lot of it was impromptu. It was exciting.
We had some statements. We drafted a statement for AAUW, for instance,
and I think I presented that. That stirred a lot of people to make their
own personal statement. And when the show was shown, of course, they
cut a lot of the organizational, pre-drafted statements and focused
on people who were stirred to respond. But it was all a part of the
evening - an exciting part.
MP: You had a
good turnout? Lots of people did show?
by then we had quite a few hundred and with Edward Murrow coming to
Norfolk, it was quite an exciting thing, and that show really did get
a lot of people. One thing that (maybe this doesn’t go on your tape),
but Carl Rowen came to Norfolk with a white photographer. You know Carl
Rowen, the black reporter for the Minneapolis newspaper and a very prominent
man. He became under-secretary of state. At that time, he was a well-known
reporter. He came and he had a white photographer, a woman, with him,
and they called to see if they could come do a story of us. They came
on over in the late afternoon to do a story. They wanted to get some
pictures of Norfolk citizens integrated at some point. Where would they
get black and white people? The only place we could think of was in
the newborn nursery at the hospital ‘cause obviously, there were no
other places at that point. They wanted to go down at visiting hours
and see if they could get a picture. Here they were and it was about
6 o’clock in the evening and they said "Where can we go to get
something to eat?" Well, in all seriousness, there was no place
we could tell a black man and a white woman to go to get something to
eat in Norfolk, so I had to say, you know, "Won't you stay and
eat with us?" But it was Hap’s birthday. It must have been his
eleventh birthday and we were having his favorite food which was pork
chops and corn on the cob. There’s no way to divide that for two more
people.. . we had enough for the kids. So I said "Well, won't you
stay" and they were darling they stayed. It was perfectly obvious
because I’d been talking to them, trying to cook dinner and was no
way to add something to it, you know, it was perfectly obvious.
MP: What did
they were real cute. Everybody just laughed and we didn’t say anything
about it at the time. We all got enough to eat - filled up with rolls
and sang "Happy Birthday" to Hap and made a big celebration out
of it. I got a delightful letter from Carl Rowen afterwards and he indicated
he had kind of caught on to what was happening. He came back to O.D.U.
a couple of years ago to speak as a very prominent statesman. I went
to hear him and when I went up afterward, bless him, he recognized me
and he said something about. . ‘.‘well I remember dinner." So,
it impressed him at the time. But you really could not send him out
after dark - a black man and a white woman out trying to find a restaurant.
MP: Those things
were brought home to you real personally.
White: One of
the big problems in these early organizations that were integrated was
where they would meet. Churches were afraid to give them a place, no
restaurant would serve them if they wanted a public dinner. It was just
always the large part of the meeting was spent trying to find out where
you could meet ‘cause you didn’t want to just meet in homes because
that made a lot of people feel a little uncomfortable. We wanted to
get a place where everybody was equally welcome.
MP: Wanted to
meet on equal turf.
White: And it
was a real challenge. You ‘know, that’s so far behind now, you can’t
even think that it happened.
MP: It’s been
a long time
MP: How did you
do all of these things when you had little children and a husband recovering
White: I didn’t
go to work until a couple of years after that. You see, when my youngest
was in kindergarten, I started working for the library and then that
was a real crowded time because I had to start taking courses at O.D.U.
at night. And you know how hard that is, don’t you?
MP: I do know.
White: To come
home from a working day and get everybody fed and get down to that 7
o’clock class at night.
MP: That was a
busier time for you than all these things were happening?
White: You know,
I can’t think of a time when it hasn’t been busy, can you? If I just
make it through this week.
MP: Did you have
help then with these children?
White: I had
some help for part of the time. I had some help which was great, but
I never had help that stayed through dinner, which is always the crunch.
But I had some help, so I could get to meetings and stuff - sure.
MP: How did your
husband do all these things and keep a practice going?
you know, we didn’t take that. .. we do just as much now. It didn’t
take that long. I don’t know.
MP: The volumes
of material that I have seen have led me to believe that there could hardly
be enough hours in the day, but that must not have been your experience
I don’t know. I think every day has always been full. We’re into
tennis at a great rate now. We play tennis three or four times a
week. Everybody says,
"How do you get time?" Well, if it’s what you want to
do it’s amazing how it works out.
MP: How were
your children feeling? Did’ they feel the same way that you did. . . just
one day at the time?
were pretty young. They weren’t really. . . afterwards Hap did his speech
at Norfolk Academy (every senior who graduates from Norfolk Academy
has to do a senior speech) and Hap decided to do his on the closed Norfolk
schools. That’s when he went back without really being fully aware of
what was going on and to him it was quite a revelation. He got very
excited about it all and gave a good speech, I thought. Then he went
on to college and they kept asking him to.. . he had the experience
of a professor saying, "Now, you’re from the South, explain to
us how segregationists feel." And Hap would say, "I have no
idea. I’ve never known a segregationist. Nobody in my family is. I can’t
explain it." People just assumed that he would have that point
of view because of-where they’re from is still a part of it. But when
he came.. . after he graduated from college, he was trying to get his
masters in Urban Studies, and I told you he’s done a lot of writing
on (the impact of the) Norfolk Housing and Redevelopment, and the impact
of racial segregation and racism. He’s done a lot of interviewing, as
you’re doing, with prominent citizens. He’s always interested and he’s
really, maybe, more of an authority on all this now because he’s studied
it and written it up.
MP: So he wasn’t
emotionally involved at the time. He was so young.
White: No, and
the others were much too young to really know very much about it.
MP: In some ways
that was probably good.
White: Oh, well,
there were kids who said funny, ugly things, I guess, but I think they
all have to take a little of that. Your family can be doing all the
accepted things and kids can say mean things to you, so what the heck!
MP: That's true.
White: I guess
Holly, my second daughter, had kids in her class who said cruel things
to her and made her feel.. . she felt it more keenly maybe than the
others, but I didn’t even know.. . she’ll tell you now.
MP: Well, they
have inherited your sense of direction or just been part of the flow of
but kids can be mean one minute and best friends the next. You know,
if you’re doing an activity with them, I think they forget about it,
don’t you. You know, and you knew they were just reflecting things they
heard their family say.. . it wasn’t children’s thinking. Of course,
I think children think.. .South Pacific says that "children must
be carefully taught". Fundamentally, children welcome each other
and will be friends and not make distinction on the basis of color at
all, but only who’s interested in the activities I am.
MP: Did you see
any different dimension that the women’s groups played or that women added
to this political campaign? Or were you so immersed that every one’s point
I think women were very, very important in making the Committee for
Public Schools work. I think they were the people who really raised
the money and kept the records. There was one marvelous gal who kept
a little box with the names of everybody who wrote a letter to the editors
or indicated interest or anybody who contacted anyone. Then we would
follow up and whenever we were getting together to do it, she would
come with her little file-card box of names, so we never lost track
of anybody who had indicated interest. That kind of skill.. . I think
that’s particularly associated with women, isn’t it.. . to keep good
records. Another gal who was just a real marvelous organizer, Dot Mulligan.
Just suddenly, out of nowhere, these people appeared and were ready
or had done something that gave them the knowledge of how you organize..
. how you get things going. One of them had worked hard with the Republican
Party. One of them had worked for the Democratic Party, but they brought
their skills into doing this.
MP: Did the press
give equal coverage to the women at that point?
was the woman’s page, you know, if you go back through the newspapers-a
woman’s page - style. It’s very hard to say that the press gives equal
coverage to women. I don’t think like Sunday’s paper with a great section
on women. ..I don’t think anybody would have dreamed ‘of that then.
MP: In terms of
this, when I was going back through papers (and I did not go through them
all) I went through a lot of them and I had a hard time determining exactly
what the women’s role was.
at that point, we had to get the prominent men’s names to announce the
Committee. It was always the prominent men, you’re right, I think that’s
probably true. But I think that would be so still. That hasn’t changed
very much. If you want the business community.. .When we were trying
to get the people for the Town Meeting, we could get prominent women
in every other field, but when we wanted the business community represented,
our advisors said, "Look, you can find a woman who is a vice-president
of a bank, or who is this or that, but if you really want the representatives
of the businesses, you have to ask men" - and that’s probably true.
So, in spite of all the pages of women in real estate, salesmen, and
women who are prominent and stuff, it’s all a nice little courtesy to
the few women who have made it.
MP: And those
people are big enough to transcend that.
I just don’t think that the business community is still equally controlled
by women.. . by any means.
MP: I think you’re
White: I don’t
know that it ever will be.
I look at the future, I see so many different things (and you don’t
want to take the time here on how I see the future of our city). I have
some visions - far
some visions - far-off visions and dreams, and it’s very, very different.
I think we’re not going to go back to the old employment. I think we’re
going to see a whole different work pattern and everything else.
MP: What do you
White: You really
want to take time?
MP: I really do.
White: I think
because of computers, lots of people are going to be able to work out
of their homes. I would like to see a time when we’re not a 9-5 city.
We don’t have to have everybody rushing to work at one time and we don’t
have to pave over half of the downtown to park cars because people will
be flexible. We don’t have to wait in those great, long lines I see
on 64 because not everyone will go to work at one time. People will
work out of terminals at home. They’ll report in and get the information
they need. Families may do a job together. Man and wife together may
have a terminal they work out
have a terminal they work out of. I see the whole work-pattern changing
MP: Back to the
partly to the home, partly to different areas. There is no reason why
everybody has to be in the downtown area. . . to different areas. I
hope I see - I would like to see people moving into and living in the
downtown area. I don’t think you can have a city where there are buildings
that are empty every night and not have it become derelict and subject
to vandalism. I see in European cities where people live in those buildings
at night. I think we’re going to be too short of space to have the luxury
of buildings that are empty on weekends and nights. I think churches
could be used full time, you know. We have very little property left
in Norfolk now, and we think we’re using it all. I think we’re going
to have to look at the clock and the calendar and see that there are
different ways to use it - to make it productive. Our lives could change
a great deal.
MP: This is what
you’re offering at the Town Meeting of the Future?
I’m not even a speaker at the Town Meeting, so I can’t say I’m offering
that. I’d like to see people thinking about what changes there will
be because I saw how angry they were when the world was changing in
the 1950’s and how a lot of people are terrified of change. They think
they can’t control it and they turn to kooky ideas . I think religious
cults and things are because people are terrified of change and new
ideas and things. I’m hoping that by means of something like the Town
Meeting, you can get people to think about how you change - how you
control what decisions you have, and not see it as an enemy, and feel
that you have to join some cult or something to escape it.
MP: Much less
threatening that way
White: I think
so. Yes. I think that if they see change as a continuous part.. . up
to that point in Virginia, people didn’t see change as a continuous
part of their lives. People wanted to hang on to things as they were.
We always laughed about hauling Virginia into the twentieth century
by its heels!
MP: You all did
have a sense of humor that kept you going.
White: Oh, of
course, I think that’s half the fun.
MP: I came across
a letter that you got at Christmas time - a Christmas card from Marge
and Dick, I think.
White: Oh, yes..
. she was the gal with the box.
MP: Well, it was
very humorous. I felt that it must have been a great part of your life.
White: Oh yes.
One of the funniest things that we did.. . we gave a New Year’s Eve
party on New Years 1959. We gave a ‘59 party and had all kinds of great
jokes. People wearing all sorts of kooky buttons and things and had
a marvelous time laughing at the whole process, which was not over then.
The schools were not open then, but there was hope they would open.
Well, I don’t know how much hope there was, but anyhow.. .When you’ve
been through a lot with friends, you feel a real common bond. You know
we got calls (I don’t know if you want this on your tape either). One
of the kinds of calls we’d get at dinner. .. they’d say "I hope
your daughter marries a nigger!" and I said "Oh, lawsy, I
hope she do. Would you like to speak to the lady of the house?"
which of course is a very prejudiced thing. But you might as well play
into their prejudice. You know, a good Negro woman would not have been
talking that way, but I thought, well all right, if that is what you
see, I’ll give it to you.
MP: That’s what
White: . . And
usually we got the phone slammed down, you know. I think they knew we
were kidding, but anyhow, if you’re gonna kid them back, it makes people
feel. When the White Citizen’s Group ran for election (and again, you’ll
have to look up the dates), there was a very strong white citizen’s
group who were very connected with the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan
and the White Citizen’s Group were very closely connected. We did do
phone calls to them saying we were in town and we wanted to know how
to get in touch with the Klan. They would put us right in touch with
them. There was no question about it. They ran on a platform of White
Citizens and when they ran for election, that was probably the most
divided time in the City. You know, politics seem to polarize people
so. There was a lot of hatred. But we noticed that all of the men running
on it had funny ears. . . those funny kind of rodent ears! I still sort
of look at people and see those funny ears and think well, "Are
you a redneck!" Really, there is a look. I don’t know what it is.
Well, yea, there was a lot of giggling and fun about it too and I think
it should be, don’t you? Life should be a celebration and you know,
I like to think we had more fun because we felt comfortable about the
things we were working for. I can’t help but feel that the people working
to keep the schools closed - to keep people narrow-minded, but have
somewhere in the depths of them, had some uncomfortable feelings about
it. It must have been very difficult for them to go to church and mouth
the words. I realize this is my point of view, but I can’t help but
MP: The church
was also supporting some of this in terms of "amalgamation"
and saying that this was God’s idea for these people and that the people
didn’t know what was best for them.
churches took different.. .You know, people quote the Bible for anything
they want. There will not be a...you know, the church, you know, James
Brewer was the minister...
MP: I’ve read
his name. It wasn’t Larchmont Methodist, was it?
White: No, it
wasn’t a Christian Church.
Church was marvelous and we could meet there. We could do everything
there. And really, a lot of people from the Unitarian Church were leaders
in this thing and were great. Other churches were different in different
ways. . .some of the truly, sincerely religious people felt called to
work with us even though some of them didn’t want to. But then there
were a lot of churches, you know, shall we say, some of our Southern
Baptist friends, were very opposed and gave their ministers. . .There
was a marvelous Southern Baptist minister here whose congregation just
opposed him, and there were ministers - the Ministerial Association
was integrated and was trying to give leadership to people in terms
of what they sincerely believed, and a lot of them had to leave, or
had very difficult times with their congregations. The minister at -
Potts - the big Methodist Church downtown?
had me do a program there with Mrs. Mason for the United Nations and
it was something that caused him a lot of trouble in his church. But
he was determined that we be on the program together. Oh, you asked
me what people were important to me.. And I, of course, I think Mrs.
Roosevelt was important. We went to Richmond and heard Mrs. Roosevelt.
She urged us to form United Nations Organizations in communities that
would support and understand. We formed a good United Nations group
here. Some of the people like Herman Williams who was in the public
schools got turned out of his job because of his stand for interracial
things. But anyhow, we had a group trying to form this United Nations
group. Mrs. Roosevelt would not come here to speak unless we could guarantee
that the audience would not be segregated. So the first unsegregated
meeting was held, I believe, it was at the Center Theater and Mrs. Roosevelt
spoke. She was tremendous. We had dinner for her at the YWCA. It took
courage for the "Y" to have the dinner. . And each of these
decisions along the way... But she was a dynamic figure in that. But
I remember when we scheduled a United Nations meeting on Africa. We
had scheduled it at Norfolk Museum before it was the Chrysler, and two
professors from Norfolk State who had been in Africa on fellowships
the summer before, and two from Old Dominion, I think, were to be on
the program. The morning of the program, they told us we couldn’t have
it...that they would not have an interracial panel at the Museum. Too
late to get into the paper, too late to let people know, we had high
school classes who planned to attend because they were studying Africa.
And you know, this kind of thing could be pulled time after time. You
could just be all set to do something and have it fall through.
MP: What did you
White: We had
to cancel that meeting.. . which is pretty silly when you think - the
United Nations, you know, really!
MP: Were you there
to make that statement? Did people come expecting a program?
And then we got it put on the radio and we tried to call people. But
the Museum would not even leave the light on so there could be an announcement
on the door telling people where it was. I think a couple of us with
flashlights went down to tell them it was called off.
MP: I noticed
that one of the statements after the schools finally opened was -and I
think Dr. White made it - was that, in retrospect, so many of the things
that happened that seemed negative at the time, had worked to the advantage.
Or that everything seemed to work in concert to finally make this happen.
something like that happened in the United Nations,, a lot of people
began saying "Hey, if I really want to know about Africa, and I
certainly want to know from two people who’ve been there, it’s kind
of silly, isn’t it" It began to be not logical in any way. I think
it began to cut the ground more and more. The rest of America was moving
this way, of course. I think the Edward R. Murrow Show shed the light
on it and made heroines of the people like Margaret White who spoke
out on it.
MP: Is Margaret
White kin to you?
She’s not another White -- but she’s not, but a great gal and a good
friend. But they did a beautiful closeup of her speaking and she came
across well on t.v. I think a lot of Norfolkians sitting in their home
watching that program got, you know, had to re-evaluate where they stood.
Who are the heroes and who are the villains? I don’t know because I’ve
never been able to really understand, even as my son, how segregationists
feel. I really wouldn’t know.
MP: Well, I thank
you for your time.
White: Is that
MP: I think it
is, unless you have a particular thought or any omissions that we made
or anything that stands out in your mind - any reflections.
you made me talk about all kinds of things that I hadn’t thought I remembered.
I hope that Norfolk has learned and will now be willing to talk about
things before.. .No one would talk about the closed schools. There was
such silence. When you went to parties that September, and at that point
there were a lot of medical parties and stuff, no one talked about it.
It was taboo. That’s dangerous when a community won't talk about things.
That’s why I have hopes for the Town Meeting. I want people to talk
about ideas before they are polarized. Before they are afraid to risk
it. I think living is a risk and you have to, you know, be willing to
say what you think and then be willing to listen to someone else. When
any community gets to the point where people differ so they wont share
ideas before they are polarized, before they are afraid to risk it.
When any community gets to the point where people differ so they wont
share ideas, then that’s dangerous. I hope we’ve learned something from
MP: I hope so.
White: I hope
we can move ahead to talk with each other because we will always have
people in the community who differ tremendously in ideas and that’s
all right. That’s good. That’s what it’s about and I don’t want us all
to be the same. I want to keep creativity and originality in kids. That’s
why I think libraries are important, so they can go and look up and
do heir own thing. I don’t want everybody conforming, not even to my
ideas. . . especially to my ideas! One of the things is that we’ve been
in some really good book discussion groups -just with friends. And we
have deep bonds with friends. There was a rabbi who -all of them worked
with us in the Committee for Public Schools. It just happened that we
got together with a book discussion group and out of it grew bonds with
Jewish and Christian friends who feel deeply about things and they’ve
been marvelous bonds. I remember when one friend, or acquaintance, I
should say, said she and her husband would like to join it, and I said
"Great ‘cause we’re always welcoming new people" and she said,
"But suppose we had ideas and other people didn’t agree with us."
I said, "Well, that’s exactly what it is about" and she said,
"Oh, well I wouldn't like that."
MP: So you never
saw much more of her.
never came. But you know, when you really don’t want to hear anybody’s
ideas but your own and you want all of your friends to be a reflection
of you, I think your life is terribly narrow and you miss out on a lot
MP: Well, I have
enjoyed this time that we’ve spent and hearing more about you.
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